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Wildflowers: Hope for Hard Times

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My word for this year is gratitude, chosen to remind myself to notice and appreciate the good in the world even in--especially in--the tough times. For me, one of the best ways to prompt myself to be grateful for this life and my place in it is to get outside, preferably out of town into wilder landscapes nearby. 

Which is why after several weeks of difficult news personally and in the larger world, I went for a run yesterday afternoon instead of writing this blog post.

It worked: I started to smile when I spotted the first Easter daisies (the common name honors the season when this ground-hugging member of the Composite family blooms) flowering on the sagebrush-dotted bench between town and the Shoshone River, along with two kinds of desert-parsley, and abundant cushions of the unbeautifully named but quite lovely spiny phlox. 

Easter daisy, Townsendia exscapa, is in the photo at the top of the post; below is spiny phlox, Phlox hoodii. Notice the native bee pollinating the starry white phlox flowers on the left side of the photo.

This afternoon, a new friend and neighbor, Jane, took me on a hike up in the Shoshone River Canyon, ten minutes from town, where she had seen even more wildflowers than I saw on my Easter-afternoon run. I don't normally play hooky on a work-day, but my intuition said loudly, "Just go!" 

And what a wonderful ramble it was: We began near the Shoshone River, rushing cold and cloudy with spring runoff, and climbed up through layers of rounded glacial cobbles, soft tan shales, cliff-forming ivory and gray limestone, and then followed a draw up through more shale layers toward a distant cliffs of limestone stained pinkish-red by iron leaching from the rocks. 

The wind sweeping down the canyon was chill, the sun warm, the sky blue with fingers of cloud appearing frm the west. I could feel my spirits rise just being outside.  

 

We saw wildflowers right away, clinging to the steep walls of in the canyon, including the blue-purple Penstemon nitidus (waxleaf penstemon) in the photo above. 

As we turned up the draw and away from the road, the real show began. Two kinds of desert parsley hugged the ground, one sulfur yellow (leafy wild parsley, Musineon divaricatum in the photo below), the other creamy with purple accents (salt and pepper, or Lomatium dissectum).  

And then Jane spotted the first stunning carmine flowers of desert paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia). First just one stalk, and then clumps of stalks, and soon we saw neon-bright paintbrush stems everywhere in the grassland around us, including growing right through the wind-sheered form of a Wyoming big sagebrush in the photo below. 

Can you tell by its brilliant red color and tube-shaped floral bracts that desert paintbrush is a hummingbird-pollinated plant? Even from high overhead, that flash of red would be hard to miss, especially for hovering migrants needing a fuel stop.

Then I spotted a magenta dot on the grassy hillside above the draw, and another and another. Shooting stars! (Dodecatheon pulchellum in the language of science, and one of my all-time favorite wildflowers.)

I tried to shoot an individual shooting star with its dark "beak" of anthers and back-swept pink petals, but it wouldn't hold still in the wind. 

Just up the drainage a ways, I spotted another favorite wildflower, Nuttall's violet (Viola nuttallii), host plant for one of the classic sagebrush-grassland butterflies, Coronis Fritillary (Speyeria coronis). 

We wandered uphill, finding more wildflowers, looking at rocks, and just enjoying being outside. Jane found some limestone with mussel shell fossils, and her Golden Retriever found a toothsome chunk of deer pelt to carry and chew. 

We were discussing whether to follow a game trail farther up the drainage toward the cliffs in the distance when I looked up the canyon.

"Those clouds fingering over the ridge from the West look serious," I said, pointing. Jane agreed that it was probably time to turn back. 

A rainwater-pitted limestone boulder growing four kinds of lichen (one is silver-gray, one blaze orange, one flagger-yellow, and the smallest is black). 

We didn't hurry, taking our time to admire more wildflowers, rocks, and a trio of mountain bluebirds that appeared on a juniper snag below us, one sky-blue male and two gray females. By the time we reached the dirt road, the wind was blowing hard down the canyon, the warm sun had gone behind clouds growing from the West, and the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees. 

When we hit the paved road in the canyon bottom just below the river, we were glad to turn out backs to the wind, and to the fat drops of cold rain beginning to fall. In the time it took us to walk the last quarter-mile to the car, the wind began to gust so hard we were bent over, the rain changed to a full-out deluge mixed with hail, and the rapids in the river below threw off a fine mist of cold spray. 

Once in the shelter of her car, we laughed about being soaked on our backs and dry on front--the contrast between windward and lee sides very evident. 

Ten minutes later, I was in my own cozy house, shivering just a little from being half-soaked, and still smiling. Even the tick I found when I changed into dry clothes didn't dent my joy. 

And now, as I look over my wildflower photos to share them with you, I am still smiling, still grateful to be part of this wondrous world. 

Taking time to nurture our spirits is always important, especially when the news is grim and life full of rocky spots.

So please give yourself the gift of doing whatever makes you smile, and makes your heart sing. It'll do us all good. 

 

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Spring Garden Discoveries & A Brag

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One of the delights of buying an older house is discovering the surprises planted by previous owners. Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth (the purple flower clusters) and columbine leaves in the photo above, in a flower border now overtaken by lawn. 

I'd guess from the yard's unkempt and overgrown character that no one has done any actual gardening, or pruning, or tending anything except the lawn in this yard for a very long time. Perhaps many decades. And even the lawn isn't in great shape. 

Which means I have the delight of coming to know what may be the original mid-century modern garden plan, much like the way I am coming to know the original mid-century modern house, also neglected for a very long time.

And just as the original details of the house charmed me when I first toured it--Who could not love the vintage kitchen in the photo above, even if it was covered with grime and bad paint?--I am finding the vintage plants appearing in the yard a delight. 

Like the daffodils, grape hyacinth and columbine in the photo at the top of the post.

Or these English irises, which have been untended for so long that their rhizomes have grown into a densely packed mound in the front yard. I spent a couple of hours yesterday cleaning up and starting to weed around them.

This fall I'll carefully dig up and divide the rhizomes, and will likely end up with enough to fill an iris bed about three times the size of this one. Which is fine with me; I'd rather have irises than boring lawn any day!

The shrub above, which I think is an old-fashioned variety of flowering quince, and has been languishing in the shade of a large and sickly honey-locust tree that my arborist removed last month. Now that the shrub is getting sun, I expect it will put on quite a flower-show next spring. 

 

The peony leaves sprouting from a grass-infested triangle by the driveway. I had been contemplating planting a peony bed this fall; now I will, since they're already part of the yard flora. (The red pigment coloring these baby leaves protects their delicate inner cells from both the intense high-elevation sunlight and the cold temperatures that come with spring in the Rocky Mountains, like today's four inches of snow.)

The rhubarb I discovered the other morning when I was surveying the narrow yard off the kitchen as my prospective edible garden. I had ordered rhubarb to plant with asparagus and raspberries, so I was thrilled to find one already in situ--the more the better. 

Yup. Those tiny, tightly crinkled leaves are rhubarb.

Many of these plants are what I call "heritage" garden plants, the kind carried from place to place and traded from gardener to gardener, their roots/tubers/bulbs wrapped in damp cloth to keep them alive. Many are long-lived; individual peony and rhubarb plants, for example, may thrive for a century or more.

The happy surprise of them emerging in my neglected yard is no doubt why my mom's been on my mind more than usual. Mom was my plant-love-companion and garden inspiration: she could grow anything from ornamentals to edibles, as well as wildflowers and other native plants. 

These particular plants are all old friends, familiar from the gardens Mom tended in the house where I grew up. Same with the lilacs and bush honeysuckle that dominate this yard's overgrown hedges. She would have loved the wild chokecherries threading through them too, gifts of visiting birds. 

Mom (Joan Tweit) in the middle between Dad (on the right) and Richard (Cabe) on the left, on a visit to Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail. I must have done a booksigning there, because Richard is holding a box of my books. 

Finding these plants is like having Mom with me, cheering me on as I work to restore both yard and house. (Mom died in 2011, the same year as Richard; April 3rd would have been her 86th birthday.)

It feels like this place was just waiting for me to come home and adopt it. I'm so grateful I could and did. 

****

The brag? This week I learned that I'm a finalist for the 2017 Colorado Authors League Awards in not one, but two categories: Essay and Blog. 

It's an honor to be a finalist for these awards juried by professional writers. In my two decades of living in Colorado, I won three CAL Awards; whether or not I win this time, being a finalist is an especially sweet coda to my time in the state. 

Keep your fingers crossed for me. The Awards Banquet is May 5th, and I'll be there for one last celebration of award-worthy writing with my CAL friends and colleagues. 

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Books: Turning Homeward, and Knocking On Heaven's Door

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Today, in typical spring-in-the-Rockies fashion, the weather pivoted 180 degrees from yesterday's sixty-five and sunny, into freezing rain, mist, sleet, snow, and then steady rain again. When I walked to the Post Office just a few minutes ago, the temperature was hovering just above freezing, and the cloud-blanket was beginning to clear, revealing new snow on the hillsides just above town. 

This kind of weather that makes me want to curl up on the couch and read. With that in mind, here are capsule reviews of two books that crossed my desk recently. The two are very different: one is memoir/nature writing of the best sort, thoughtful and insightful, and the other is crackling good fiction. What they share is that both books stretch boundaries, shift perspectives, and teach us things we didn't know we needed to know. Which is what makes each a great read. 

Turning Homeward, Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

As a girl growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Adrienne Ross Scanlan watched her father with the other men at Temple Zion, white prayer shawls over dark suits, "swaying and chanting their prayers." At home, she watched a different kind of movement as the tremors and other neuro-motor impacts of Parkinson's disease robbed her father of the ability to "rise from his Naugahyde recliner, walk into a room, hug his daughters, talk and laugh with friends..."

After her father died, Scanlan, by then an adult, sold her belongings, quit her job and moved West for a new start. She wound up in Seattle and began searching for her own form of healing in volunteer work to help restore the region's iconic salmon runs. She understood it as a way to practice the Jewish tradition of tikkum olam, a term that translates as ''repair of the world."

Turning Homeward chronicles what Scanlan learns about the complexities of both mending the world and living as a thoughtful and conscious human being. Her meditations on the meaning of tikkum olam, and the meaning of restoration in nature and in daily life apply to all of us. How can we as fallible human beings live with our flaws and the hurts we intentionally or not inflict on each other and the world? How do we live with the knowledge that even at our best, we cause pain and suffering, simply by being? We all eat, for example, and in the doing, we consume other lives. Even if we eat a purely plant-based diet, we eat plant embryos as we consume grain and beans, and plant flesh in roots like carrots or leaves like spinach. How do we atone for those impacts, unwitting or not?

For Scanlan, the answer is in practicing tikkum olam, consciously working to repair the world in whatever form we are called to:

The call to repair is genuine, arising from our best selves, I like to think, the part of all of us capable of acknowledging the harms we've crated without shrinking away in guilt or fear. There's no end to the damage we caused, just as there's no end to our curiosity, our capacity for good work, our intelligence, and our compassion. The reasons for despair are everywhere and profound. What's lost does matter. So does what's still here and what's still possible. ... Tikkun, I've come to learn, isn't identified by intentions but by the impact of what we hope are reparative actions.

Turning Homeward is a work of thoughtful atonement. Scanlan writes honestly and tenderly about what has not worked in mending her life, and the lives of salmon and urban streams, as well as what has. And out of despair at the havoc we have wreaked on this earth and each other, a quiet sense of hope grows in her words, the kind of active expectation of the results of conscious work that can in fact, lead to mending the wounds of the world and we humans.

Knocking On Heaven's Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

Clare breathed in the smell of blood. Sharp, metallic, in the air, on her skin. She slipped her knife into the space between the joint and bone of the mare's hip—a small young female but still too much meat, more than enough for their next few days of hunting. Tonight she and Jon would feast on the rump with garlic and onion, some saltbush leaves, perhaps a mint paste... Clare felt happy thinking about her dinner. She felt...lust. A fervent yearning. Her mouth filled with saliva. A violent tenderness. Her heart expanded, blossomed, pressed against her ribcage so that she mewled without sound, kittenish. She slunk forward, barely in control, through the grass...

No, no, these were not her thoughts. 

"Cat! Cat!" Clare yelled and stood, dropping the knife, picking up her spear from the bloodied ground.

It is the 23rd Century, about 150 years after a supervirus has wiped out almost every human being on Earth. The few survivors have recreated a "utopian" paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle imbued with animism, informed by New Physics, and linked by solar-powered laptops (solarcomps) via the worldwide web.

Clare and her tribe live in New Mexico, moving with the seasons, feasting on abundant plants and wild game, and celebrating the cycles of nature. The only animals they do not hunt are the "paleos," once-extinct Paleolithic species reintroduced before the virus, creatures like the saber-toothed cat who intruded into Clare's thoughts and nearly killed her and her hunting companion at the beginning of the book. Many paleos are telepathic; as Clare says, "How could you hunt someone you could talk to?"

A widow whose young daughter died six years before, Clare has found comfort and meaning in teaching creative writing to students from around the world via the worldwide web. Now, one of her students, a younger man from her own tribe, has become her lover. Clare's life seems settled, until she is assigned to serve as quest-guide to Brad, a "lab rat" and theoretical physicist who lives in the relative comfort of what remains of the Los Alamos National Laboratory complex.

Brad, who discovered The Theory of Everything and whose mathematics describes how life could exist in "quantum non-locality," as holographic projections of actual cells. Brad, who has put off the required quest as long as possible, who prefers to think math in his office rather than hunt and sleep outdoors. Brad, who initially becomes interested in Clare simply a woman who might bear his children.

The quest the two set off on becomes so much more than a simple journey, bringing up classic conflicts: a life close to the earth versus a life of the mind, technology versus nature, organized society versus loners who live outside the culture, intuitive and sensory knowledge versus intellect, man versus woman. The story twists and turns through the landscape, through lives, through physics and Brad's risky experiment to win Clare as his own. The choices the two humans make in the aftermath of that experiment will shape their future and that of their people.

Science fiction generally doesn't interest me, but Knocking on Heaven's Door sucked me in and kept me hooked, immersed in a culture and characters I hadn't imagined I wanted to know. Sharman Apt Russell's imagined future manages to be both utopian and also startlingly contemporary, relevant and illuminating to our lives and choices today.

___ 

Two excellent reads, thanks to two authors unafraid to reach deep, think way beyond the norms, and explore the world, in very different ways. Happy reading!

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What Home Feels Like

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Back when Molly was in middle school and high school, we lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert just 35 miles north of the US-Mexico border. (There we are in the photo above in  grove of native Mexican elder trees in our backyard. My hair was still red and long then, Richard hadn't started shaving his head, and Molly had a cat named Hypoteneuse.)

Late-spring and early summer temperatures in Las Cruces can easily soar into the triple digits. Whenever I would turn woozy and white in the heat, Richard would tease me: "You're my favorite Norteña."  

The literal meaning of Norteña is a female from the North, which I am (I was born in northern Illinois at 42 degrees N latitude). In the Spanglish spoken in the border region, Norteña could also be a mild insult, meaning a foreigner, someone who doesn't belong.  

Which was true as well, though in the seven years we spent in Las Cruces, I tried to belong: I studied the history, natural history, and culture of our desert region. I wrote four books about the desert, including my favorite, Barren, Wild and Worthless, my first excursion into what I didn't know then was memoir; plus dozens of articles, and hundreds of weekly radio commentaries. I led nature walks, worked on restoration projects, and co-founded a book festival about the border region with my friend and co-honcha Denise Chávez, novelist and visionary extraordinaire. 

Still, I never quite acculturated to life at 32.32 degrees North. My body didn't love the heat; my immune system didn't love the wind-blown clouds of pollen from the non-native species, including the mulberry trees planted throughout town for welcome shade. My diurnal rhythms were confused when summer days weren't long and winter days were. 

When we moved north to Salida, Colorado, Richard's childhood home, in what he considered "that cold state way up north" (at 38.5 degrees N), I was relieved. Salida had, I thought, the best of the Southwest and enough of the Rockies to feel like home. And it did, while he was alive. 

After he died though, I grew more and more restless. I missed... something. I traveled more, trying to figure out what I was looking for. It wasn't until I spent two weeks volunteering on an ecological restoration project in Yellowstone National Park (digging out invasive weeds), that I realized what should have been obvious. 

Grubbing houndstongue, an invasive perennial, from around the base of big sagebrush in northern Yellowstone. 

I was homesick.

This Norteña missed summer evenings so long it feels like it will never get dark, until night suddenly swallows the twilight, and short winter days. The sweetly turpentine-like smell of sagebrush after warm rains. The sound of robins cheer-ee-o-ing at dawn in early spring.

The pell-mell rush as the days lengthen, and then suddenly the grass is green and all the birds sing a nearly operatic daily chorus. Until summer and they go silent in the exhausting work of feeding voracious young, when wildflowers bloom one after the other after the other in bee-mad meadows. And elk calves honk for their mothers. 

Silvery lupine and Wyoming indian paintbrush blooming among big sagebrush

The sound of male elk bugling that wheezy nasal challenge in fall, as bighorn sheep males duking it out with a loud cracking of colliding foreheads. (Such guys!) The sour-sweet smell of fallen aspen leaves wet in the first snow. 

The silence of winter nights; the howl of blizzard winds. The bite of sub-zero air on bare skin. The stars crackling bright against skies so dark they seem to swallow the earth. 

A gnarled old big sagebrush shrub hanging on through winter

After I moved home to Cody between blizzards in January, some part of me that had been tense and alert for decades relaxed. The slant of the light at this latitude (45.5 degrees N, the same as Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Illinois, and the Gulf of Maine), felt right.

The blue winter twilights, so soothing after the dazzle of sun on snow during the day. The wind whooshing in the spruce trees in my yard; the resiny smell of spruce sap as the days began to warm. The sagebrush on the hill behind my neighborhood, their small evergreen leaves gradually turning from winter's silver-gray to silver-green again.

And now that the robins are back from their southern winter homes, their cheerfully fluting voices wake me. I lie in bed in my snug spot among the big spruces and my heart fills with joy. Home for me is more than people and memories. It is the light, the rhythm of the seasons, the smells and sounds of life going about its business. 

It is something I feel in my cells, a kind of inner contentment at being in the place that is just right for me, inside and out.

Richard and I loved each other with our whole hearts. But born in Arkansas, raised in Salida, Haiti, and South Texas, my southern guy never understood the call of my particular North. Perhaps he would if he were here with me to get to know the place, but he isn't.

And in this bittersweet journey, I feel very fortunate to have found my way back home on my own. 

My bedroom (still unfinished, but quite snug)

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The Three Rs: Running, Renovation, Revision

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I went for a run today, my first since I moved home to Cody two months and two days ago. I would say it felt great to be running again, but my relationship with running is much more complicated than that.

I need to run, something I know intellectually. But it takes a lot of emotional energy to talk myself into it, each time. I have an amazing ability to find excuses and wimp out. And then I feel bad because I didn't run. 

Once I get going though and find my pace, I feel pretty good, except when I run out of breath and don't. Still, the fact that I'm out and running keeps me going, both because I am competitive and hate to quit, and because I feel pretty darned saintly to be exercising. 

The best part is after I finish, when I feel simply and unambiguously great, my body tired, but loose and limber, my mind righteous, and my spirits high because running takes me outside, and as my artist-friend Sherrie York says on her website, "outside fuels our insides." Time in nature is the best medicine for body, mind, and spirit. 

Today's run wasn't long--I did about 2.5 miles through quiet streets and down the hill to the upper bench above the Shoshone River where it winds in its shallow canyon past town. I ran through fragrant sagebrush, looking for signs of spring in the still-winter-brown high desert landscape, like the mat of dwarf phlox in the photo above, the living parts of the aged mat greening up.

I followed the city-maintained river trail with its great views of the surrounding Bighorn Basin landscape until its end, and then I headed back, slowing to a walk for the switchbacks up the steep hill, and then running through city streets to home. 

(The photo at the top of the post is from that river trail, looking southwest to Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains on the way to Yellowstone; the photo above is looking down-river in the opposite direction toward McCullough Peaks, a badlands wilderness northeast of Cody.)

On the renovation front, the biggest progress this week has been in the attic, where my contractor, Jeff, has been adding vents so the attic can breathe, which is important for all sorts of reasons, including letting the roof cool down in summer, and keeping mold from growing up there.  

The other big change is the small bathroom taking shape in my bedroom, with a washer-dryer closet next to it, and a narrow linen closet between. When it's all finished, I'll have my own little suite--bedroom, bath, laundry, and my office opening off the bedroom. 

The unused end of my bedroom before, with my office on the right. 

And now, with the walls of the bathroom and laundry center taking shape, the plumbing and wiring roughed in. 

Looking the other direction at my bed and its corner of windows that makes me feel like I'm sleeping in a treehouse...

On the writing front, I finished a feature article for Wildflower Magazine, and when I turned it in, my editor wrote back to say she loved it, "and thanks for making my job easier." That's music to any writer's ears! 

The more difficult part of my writing week was yet another rejection for my memoir, Bless the Birds, with a lovely note from the editor who said the writing was beautiful, the story touching and engrossing, and the characters and sense of place powerful. But she didn't want it. 

After listening to a webinar with Brooke Warner, publisher of SheWrites Press, I think I know what's wrong and why despite all of the praise for this memoir of my heart, no editor has snatched it up: it's the economics of publishing today. Memoirs normally run between 70,000 and 80,000 words, and Bless the Birds is 97,000 words, albeit downsized significantly from 125,000 in last summer's intense revision

Brooke explained the money end in a way I hadn't heard it before. Sure, she said, a memoir or novel can be longer, but when an editor is making the calculations to sell a manuscript to the publication committee, she or he has to justify additional length in terms of some kind of great platform to drive sales, because the longer a book is, the more it costs, "and margins in publishing are already thin." 

A manuscript of more than 80,000 words, Brooke said, simply costs too much to produce. And then she added for me what was the kicker, "and people are reading shorter and shorter these days," in part, she explained, because they're reading in snatches of time between other commitments, or on a mobile device. 

So I've made the difficult decision to clear time in my schedule and dive back into a manuscript I thought I was done with. My aim: shrink the word count by more than 20 percent and make the story stronger and more compelling, more universal, as I do so.

And not shred my heart along the way; this is a love story, but it's a painful one. I owe it to the guy in the photo below, and the life we made even as brain cancer ended his, to get the story right so it can help us all live our days well and with grace, whatever our path.

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011

PS: My apologies about the issues with the comment function on this blog. It's always been annoying, and now it doesn't work at all. Sigh. Another thing to deal with in time, and thanks for your patience! 

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Renewal Inside and Out

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Spring is coming to my long-neglected house and yard. The photo above is my amazing arborist, Aaron Danforth, de-limbing one of two green ash trees in my front yard. Neither has had an arborist's attention in a long time--perhaps never, and this one has a split in its main trunk so deep that it groans when the wind blows, and spits out fist-sized chunks of rotten wood. 

Despite some windy days and a toddler with croup, Aaron, a rock-climber who became an arborist because he loves trees and loves climbing, has managed to de-limb three of the eight huge spruces in my front and back-yard, fell one entirely, and take that ash tree down to its fat trunk. Which is why I have some sizable piles of mulch to deal with (the front-yard one is to the right of the ash tree in the photo above). 

While Aaron was climbing and sawing and chipping, my contractor, Jeff Durham, installed eighteen insulated roman shades throughout the house, a job that involved quite some finagling. Retrofitting anything in a 60-year-old house is not simple. 

The shades have already made a difference in the nighttime temperatures inside, and since this house was not even slightly energy efficient when it came to me, that's a big deal.

They also look elegant. The fabric is a pewter gray color with the slubbed look of raw silk and a slight sheen. I think it's the same fabric as the roman shades I loved in the casita where I stayed for my Women's International Study Center fellowship in Santa Fe last fall with playwright DS Magid, and scholar Stanlie James

(DS and Stanlie, do you recognize that fabric?)

Jeff also replaced the non-working light and ugly pole at the end of my driveway with a new post and working solar-powered light, and framed in the en-suite bath in the unused end of my bedroom so that it's ready for wiring and plumbing rough-in. 

When the bath is finished, we'll replace the floor, which was in such bad shape we couldn't save it, and paint my bedroom. (The bookshelves in the opening on the right are in my office--I have a short commute!)

Jeff's daughter Shantel, ace painter, finished applying the soft yellow color inspired by my vintage kitchen cabinets to three walls of the living/dining room (it's a long room, so that's a lot of wall!), and then painted the end wall of the dining room in the more sagey of the two green shades that I'm using as accent colors throughout the house. 

The color is less minty in person than in this photo

Then she painted another wall in the breakfast nook in that same soft yellow, brightening the space considerably.

 

While Aaron sawed, chipped, and felled, Jeff built, and Shantel painted, what was I doing? When I wasn't coordinating the restoration work and ordering supplies, I was at my desk writing. I finished a feature article for WILDFLOWER Magazine, and my monthly column for Houzz, which you can read here

Best office ever...

This weekend I took a break from writing to join the restoration work. I rolled my wheelbarrow out of the garage, grabbed my leaf rake and scoop shovel, and went to work spreading fragrant spruce-bough mulch on the eroded and bare soil in my yard resulting from my too many trees. 

Mulch will not only shade the soil from both hot summer sun and winter cold, it'll help retain moisture and allow rain and snow-melt to sink in rather than running off. Its sheltering qualities will make the community of micro- and macro-organisms living below the surface happier, and they thus will work their own brand of renewal magic, making the soil healthier for my remaining trees and all else rooted there. 

As I spread mulch in my east-side yard, I discovered neon-green daylily sprouts along the house foundation, plus daffodils poking up darker green leaves. Both are emerging in response to sunlight, which hasn't reached that area in decades. 

By the time I had reduced the front-yard mulch pile to almost nothing late this afternoon, my back and shoulders were protesting. So I stowed my tools, came inside and cleaned up, and made myself dinner. And then headed for that long teal couch in the living room, where I sit now with my feet up, writing this post and admiring the stars in the night sky out the window. 

I feel very grateful to have the work of writing and helping bring this house and yard back to life. There is much hard work ahead, but I am heartened by how far we have come. Spring is coming, and with it the promise of renewal. We can all take heart from that. 

Arabella the Christmas cactus thinks it's spring already!

 

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One Nation, Indivisible & Renovation

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I first heard about the Indivisible movement from my 88-year-old dad in January, not long after I moved to Wyoming. In our weekly call--he lives just 15 minutes from my brother and sister-in-law, but I still check in almost every weekend, since Dad lives alone and is legally blind--I asked what was up in his world. 


"Well," he said, "three gals from Panorama [the senior community where he lives] and I visited our Senators' offices to talk about our concerns." 


"We're using the Indvisible Handbook," he added. "And following their recommendations about how to communicate with our members of Congress."


I hadn't heard of Indivisible then, and as Dad filled me in about the grassroots movement, my mind leapt to the Pledge of Allegiance, which as a child of the public schools, I recited every school-day for more than a decade:


I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, and with liberty and justice for all.


(That's the version adopted in 1954; the original version was shorter, especially the final clause, which read simply, "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.")


Within the next couple of weeks, Wyoming Rising, the group that formed out of the Cody Women & Allies Rally, adopted the Indivisible Handbook as its guide for action. I've been impressed by the speed with which the movement has grown, and its effectiveness in getting out the message of fairness, of liberty and justice for all.


The name "Indivisible" is brilliant: for its simplicity, its evocation of the patriotism in the Pledge of Allegiance, and for its reference to what is a founding concept of this democracy of ours: we are "one nation, indivisible."


Indivisible. n. Unable to be divided or separated. 


No matter our religious, cultural, racial or political differences, we have more in common as human beings, as citizens and residents of these United States, than not. At heart we want the same things (though not necessarily in the same order): good lives for ourselves and our families, love, jobs, comfortable homes, religious freedom, education, a healthy environment, financial security, health care, a future that looks bright. 


It seems to me that we are most likely to achieve those things if we work together, instead of fracturing on lines of ideology and politics.


I am reminded of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote on a Solstice broadside sent out by Clifford Burke and Virginia Mudd of Desert Rose Press


If it where only so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and if it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?



None of us are perfect. None of us have all the answers. But together, we can do great things--for all. 


*****


On the house restoration front, it's been a busy week. Probably the biggest change is that the weather was balmy enough that Jeff Durham, my contractor, was able to work outside and remove the carport addition that turned my front entry into a dark and forbidding cave. 



The front entry before, with Jeff up on its flat roof (which didn't drain and thus had begun to rot). My front door is back there in that dark hole. 



The front entry after, with my new front-door patio exposed (room for the cluster of pots sitting on the lawn, plus perhaps a stock-tank planter full of tomatoes and basil....). In the morning, the sun now reaches under those eaves and lights the kitchen. 



That now-sunny kitchen, with more door handles returned to their original copper shine (29 handles done, 14 to go). 


Tree-removal work commenced as well, thanks to Aaron Danforth of Arbor Solutions Tree Care, beginning with the big spruce that was threatening to fall on my living room and dining room. For those who hate the idea of removing trees, let me reassure you: When Aaron is done removing three mature spruces, seven Rocky Mountain junipers, two sick European Mountain Ash, and one green ash tree split almost to its base, I will still have a mini-forest of five huge spruces, three crabapple trees (which will have space to breathe and grow), one green ash and one honey-locust. 



(That's Aaron halfway up the big Engelmann spruce, removing limbs. He's a rock climber who took to tree work.)


Inside the house, we're replacing plumbing fixtures that barely work with new efficient ones (one toilet done, two more to go), and, in the most visible development, Shantel, Jeff's daughter and also mother of his adorable toddler grandson, Jayden, is painting in between mom-ing and school (she's working toward a nursing degree). 


This weekend Shantel finished the fussy work of painting the kitchen wall above the cabinets "Cloudless" blue to match the wall oven and microwave, and painted the end wall of the adjacent breakfast nook in the soft yellow I picked to go with my vintage metal cabinets. 



(Art on the left-hand wall by Salida printmaker Sherrie York; mandala by Tommy Williams of Riverton, Wyoming; vintage table from Connie and Jay Moody of Cody;  jonquils from Kerry and Dave Nelson of the former Ploughboy Local Market in Salida)


And then she really got on a roll and painted two of the living room walls with that same yellow. ("They Call it Mellow"--you have to love color names!) Between the new paint and removing the horrible brown drapes and hardware, the room looks bigger, lighter and brighter. 



Next week, Jeff will install the insulating roman shades that are currently lying on the floor, and then start framing in the space in my bedroom that will become a small "en suite" bathroom (so when I'm old, I won't have to share the main bathroom with my live-in companion...). 


Did I say that I love my house? And that it's satisfying, healing and downright exciting to help bring it back to life?


I am grateful--to be alive, to be home again, and to be involved in so much positive work, my writing, this house-restoration project, and in speaking up for the earth and my fellow humans. Bless us all!

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That Balm in Gilead

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There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead
To soothe a sin-sick soul.  

Those lines in my favorite spiritual are running through my head tonight because I sang them Sunday morning at the early service at the Episcopal Church.

(Some of you are probably saying, Whoa! What's a Quaker doing at an Episcopal Church? Well, there's no Quaker meeting in Cody. The Episcopal Church is in walking distance, and boasts really glorious music thanks to music director Jim Hager, plus insightful sermons by the rector, Rev. Mary Caucutt. And I have good friends in the congregation.)

This last was something new to me, a hymn-sermon service. No words from Rev. Mary, who always seems to say something I needed to hear. Still, as Warren Murphy, the previous rector, and Jim talked about each hymn, Warren interpreting the history and meaning of the words, and Jim the music, I found myself fascinated by these new perspectives on familiar verses and melodies.

And then when we got to the final hymn, There is a Balm in Gilead (click to listen to one particularly good choral recording), my whole spirit just lit up. What I love about this spiritual that has become a hymn is that refrain. There is a balm in Gilead... 

There really is a balm in Gilead. (I realize there's a metaphor about Jesus as the balm, but I like to know real-world truth under the metaphor.) The balm is an fragrant ointment made from the resinous sap of a small tree called Gilead or Mecca myrrh (Commiphora opobalsumum). The tree, native to the Mideast around the Red Sea, is in the same family as other small desert trees species that produce Frankinsence, Myrrh, Copal, and incense.

Botanical illustration of the tree, and its leaves, flowers, and fruits from an antique German flora

The sap of the Gilead tree is what has the healing properties. (It has been studied recently for its efficacy in preventing and healing gastric ulcers, among other uses.)

By now, you are wondering where I am going with this spiritual, and the real or metaphoric balm. Here's where:

I didn't realize, until I moved into this badly neglected house with its beautiful bones, how much I needed a balm, a project that would heal my heart, wounded from losing my mom and Richard five years ago, and freshly hurt by the bitterly divisive politics in my former small town and now the nation. 

This place is my balm. The house with its big windows and great light, the sheltering forest of too-many spruce trees it is tucked into, my restoration project in progress, my small circle of friends and the warmly welcoming larger community, and this expansive landscape studded with fragrant sagebrush, my personal healing plant--all are working to heal wounds I hadn't realized were still aching, and to soothe my soul, sickened by the violence and hatred and mean-spirited tribalism that seem to be flourishing in our world today. 

I moved home knowing intuitively that I needed to be here, but not really sure why it felt so urgent. Now I understand: this is my balm in Gilead. 

So when I'm not writing (my current project is a feature article for Wildflower Magazine), I am continuing to work on bringing Spruce House, as I have begun calling it, back to life. While my contractor, electrician, and plumber focus on the big stuff (like building walls, making the wiring safe and functional, and installing working fixtures in the bathrooms), I'm doing smaller projects.

Over the weekend, I focused on the basement stairs. Saturday I spent about four hours filling in as many of the nail holes and gouges and I could, repeating to myself "They're basement stairs; they don't have to be perfect." (And they're clearly not, as the photo above shows!) 

Then I sanded the filler, and washed each tread and riser with oil soap. After which came priming the stairs; that took most of yesterday afternoon. And then, last night, I painted the first couple of steps with their new color: Cloudless, a sky-blue that just happens to match the vintage wall-oven in my kitchen (and the couch where I am stretched out, feet up writing this blog post, as well as my new living room rug). 

Primer coat on, still not pretty, but definitely lighter and brighter... 

And then that blue, a huge change from the filthy brown carpet I pulled off the steps a week ago. 

I've started installing bath hardware in the one bathroom where all three fixtures work (one of which is the beautiful granite basin Richard carved), and I'm continuing to strip the dingy gray paint from the beautiful copper door handles and drawer pulls in my kitchen.

New towel ring... 

Each task accomplished (19 handles cleaned, 24 to go...) is one more step toward restoring this house to healthy life; each is also a personal triumph. I can do this!, I remind myself as I pick up a tool or tape measure, as I scrape paint. "Tool girl" doesn't come naturally for me; it is a skill I only learned after Richard died. So I am continually surprised and proud of myself that I can build, maintain, repair... And that the work gives me such a positive boost. 

Just look at those shining copper-coated handles!

We all need a balm in tough times, something literal or figurative to heal us and soothe our spirits. Depending on our needs and the times, that balm might be a vacation, a new spiritual practice, creative or constructive work, family and friends, a new exercise regime, a volunteer project, a resolve to eat more healthfully or sleep more... 

I am grateful to have found my balm right here in the home of my heart, in this house I didn't know I needed, in a community and landscape I had forgotten how much I loved. 

Come spring, I'm going to plant some sagebrush in my yard. Then I'll truly be home. 

Big sagebrush growing on the hill above my neighborhood. 

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Restoration as a Calling

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I've been home a month as of yesterday, a span of time that seems both impossibly short and un-countably long. Short when I think about everything we've gotten done on this house-project, and forever when I realize how familiar it is to be back. 

(Yesterday was also Molly's birthday. Happy Birthday, Sweetie!)

I walk almost the same route to the Post Office every afternoon that I took daily when I lived in Cody thirty-plus years ago, climbing the steep sidewalk up the sagebrush-clothed hillside above my neighborhood, and passing houses whose occupants I can name. (The photo at the top of the post is the view from the top of the hill.) In fact, I live in the same neighborhood I did back then. 

Of course, much has changed in my life and in the town. I am sixty, now, widowed with a "kid" who is an adult; when I left Cody for Laramie and grad school, I was newly divorced and hadn't met either Richard or Molly. Much less moved with them to West Virginia, Washington State, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and then back to Colorado.

I've lived a whole life away from this place: I step-mothered Molly, wrote twelve books and hundreds of articles, essays and stories for magazines and newspapers around the country; I nursed my mother and the love of my life through their deaths in the same year. I finished and sold the house Richard built for us and his studio too, and built a snug house and guest studio of my own.

All of that away from the place that has called me home for as long as I remember. Which may explain why I am so happy here in the midst of a house-project I never imagined taking on, with a yard that needs even more work than the house. 

My bedroom, still in progress... That green spot on the wall is a sample of the color it will be eventually; the floors are in such bad shape they can't be refinished, so they'll be covered with reproduction plank flooring.  

I wake every morning in my bedroom with the unfinished floors and walls that need painting, and am ridiculously happy. I am home, I think. I have found my refuge, one I needed more than I realized. I also have found my calling. 

I need the place itself, the landscape that smells like sagebrush, the views bounded by mountains I know intimately because I have walked their slopes and ridges in the days I did fieldwork here. 

And I need this house, both because its beautiful bones speak to me of care, craftsmanship, and comfort; and because it has been so neglected. The house needs me and my vision (and savings!). The restoration project it represents is something positive I can do when the world is so full of negativity, a way to work forward in a time seemingly stalled by divisiveness and fear. 

Restoration as I am practicing it here is both hard physical work and metaphor. It is also my calling in life, especially now. 

Ripping the horrible and filthy carpet off the basement stairs yesterday morning, for instance, not only satisfied my inner Tool Girl--using that little pry bar to remove that which I cannot restore is amazingly satisfying!--it also gave me the kind of workout that makes my muscles sing and sends me to bed early, to sleep well and long. 

Having my hands on tools and the work of bringing this beautiful but badly treated house back to life satisfies my need to heal, to reweave the fabric of the human community, if just in this small way, in a time when we have split along bitter political/religious/tribal lines.

The work I am doing along with my contractor and his trades-colleagues isn't about red or blue or who voted which way (or didn't vote at all); it's not some kind of litmus test for who is good or who is evil.

It is simply positive work. We find common ground in tools and design, and in working hard and smart, in teasing each other, in sympathizing about kids making bad choices or aging parents slipping away. We ask each other's advice, appreciate the craft we practice, and the drive to do it well.

We talk about mundane stuff and also about more esoteric things, like what it means to be a good, caring person, and how "community" comes from "common" and means remembering that we share our humanity, that we are stronger together.  

I am reminded of the deeper meanings of restoration each time we make the decision about whether some aspect of the house is in good enough shape that it can be fixed up, or it is too far gone and must go, like that truly nasty carpet on the basement stairs.

When I finished removing that carpet and its accumulated grime. I set to pulling out the staples, tacks, and even three-penny nails (who nails down carpet?) that had held it and at least one previous iteration in place.

My trusty nail-pulling pliers, which in a previous life trimmed the hooves on my horses, and served to pry out loose horseshoe nails too...

What I found underneath was a set of well-built if battered wood stairs, which when patched and re-painted, will look inviting (instead of scary) and be sturdy and comfortable underfoot. Not art, but good workmanship. 

Imagine these stairs with the holes filled and a fresh coat of paint that brightens up the space.

To restore is to rebuild (literally as well as figuratively: restore comes from the Latin word that means "to rebuild"); in that rebuilding, we evaluate what we have, save what we can, and start over on what we can't. We work with the now, knowing it's not perfect. 

Sometimes restoration brings welcome surprises, uncovering beauty hidden beneath the surface. As with the handles on the original sunshine-yellow metal cabinets in my vintage kitchen. They are gray, and I assumed until I recently took a closer look that they were metal dulled by 60 years of use. 

Not so: The gray chipped off under my fingernail, revealing bright copper beneath. Oh my!

Last night I surfed the internet, looking for non-toxic ways to remove paint from metal door hardware. On This Old House, I found this one: "Simmer" the hardware overnight in hot, not boiling water, with a tablespoon or two of dish soap.

A handle in the process of simmering away the gray paint... 

Then simply scrape off the paint with a stiff plastic bristle brush (I didn't have a brush, so I used my fingernails), and polish. It worked! 

Two handles cleaned, polished, and reattached. Forty-one more to go... 

It seems to me that what we need right now is a lot more energy aimed at restoration--restoring our lives and communities, and a lot less polarization, anger and fear. What we have is what we have. We can't go back. 

But we can go forward with an aim to restore, to thoughtfully evaluate what we find, and then work hard and smart--together--to save and shine up what we can, and rebuild what we can't. 

We may find beauty we didn't imagine in the doing. We'll surely rediscover our commonality, what unites us as caring human beings, and that is a gift we truly need. 

Can you spot those three copper handles? They match the original copper-clad range hood. 

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On the Road & Home Again

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Last Thursday, Red and I hit the road promptly at eight-thirty am, and I envisioned clear roads for the 490-mile drive to Denver, where I was scheduled to speak at ProGreen Expo on Friday and the Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference on Saturday.


The roads were clear, even if for the first hour and a half (photo above), the landscape on either side was distinctly snowy. But by the time I wound through the Wind River Canyon and turned east toward Casper, the snow-pack decreased markedly.



The Wind River Canyon, with its towering cliffs of Paleozoic limestones and dolomites, one of my favorite parts of the drive. 


Only the wind started to blow. For the 90 miles from Shoshoni to Casper, it was mostly a tail-wind. That was good. 


From Casper on, that changed, and the gusts walloping Red grew stronger and stronger. The overhead warning signs on Interstate 25 advised the road was closed to light, high-profile vehicles because of gusts 60+ mph.


I can attest to the "plus" part: as I was exiting at Wheatland to fill Red's gas tank, I watched a semi truck and trailer blow over in a particularly vicious gust, the whole rig toppling slowly onto its side. A highway patrol car stopped right away, so I headed on to the gas station, where I had to hang onto Red's side mirrors to keep from being blown off my feet! 


The gusts continued, and the air temperature continued to climb, until when I finally stopped in Boulder to pick up my cool new retro microwave at Big Chill appliances (more about that later), it was 78 degrees. Quite a change from the 25-degree temperatures as I left Cody that morning. 


The next day, I wandered the trade show at ProGreen, talking to tree farmers, nursery-folk, and vendors of mini-excavators (I got to sit in the cab of one and play with the controls) and arborist's tools (I bought a wicked new pruning saw), among others. (ProGreen is the annual convention of the region's "green industry," landscapers, maintainers of public gardens and golf courses, equipment providers, and nursery folk.)



My talk, "Terroir in Landscaping: Restoring Local Flavor," was in the last group of presentations of the four-day conference, and it was 80 balmy degrees outside, so I wasn't sure I'd get much of an audience. To my surprise, more than 100 people showed up, and they were completely absorbed and attentive through the whole hour. (This column from Houzz explains one facet of terroir as that French word for local flavor applies to landscaping.)


Afterwards, an eager group came up to thank me and ask questions. One guy said, "Best talk of the whole conference! Thank you." Wow! 


Then my friend and fellow plant nerd Erica Holtzinger and I went out to lunch and talked plants and kids and life. After which I went off to do big-city errands, and then braved rush-hour traffic (where do all of those people come from?) to stay with another friend, Connie Holsinger (no relation to Erica, although we have all worked together) of the Habitat Hero Project and Terra Foundation. 


The next day was an all-day immersion in the second annual Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference. I had the honor of welcoming the participants to the sold-out conference and MCing the opening panel, after which I taught a workshop on Design with Natives, ate lunch with a table-full of eager attendees and answered questions, and then served as introducer and time-keeper for another session, and then helped move and re-arrange tables and chairs at the end of the day.



Great job, Jen, Ronda, Amy, Deryn, Jim, Irene, Nick, and Karen!


So if I look a little tired in the photo above of the Conference planning committee, all of us giddy that we pulled off another successful conference, it's not surprising. 


Connie, who also participated in the conference, took me out to dinner at Zucca Restaurant in Louisville that night, and we both ate so much delicious Italian food that we were sorry we hadn't walked there and back. (I was tempted to lick my plate after finishing off a serving of pumpkin ravioli with browned sage butter.) 


The next morning (yesterday!), I was packed and ready to hit the road by seven-thirty. It was damp, chill and cloudy, but I could see blue skies to the north, and Red doesn't care what the weather is like--she's always ready for a road-trip. 


We stopped in Cheyenne at a Home Depot to buy some bath fixtures, LED lightbulbs and other house-renovation supplies, and then drove on. The wind wasn't blowing (much, for southeastern Wyoming), the sun was shining, and I was ready to be home. 


At four pm, I pulled Red into the garage. And then came unloading, including that new retro microwave, which I immediately unboxed and put on its shelf (it's on the right in the photo below), and as I hoped, it provides the perfect aqua counterpoint to my vintage wall oven. 



Officially the coolest kitchen I have ever had... 


And then I walked into the living/dining room and discovered that Sam, the electrician who installed and programmed the amazing  wifi light-switch system that meant we didn't have to rewire the entire house, had also unpacked and installed Sputnik, the retro chandelier I had ordered for the dining room.


Of course, I had to find the LED Edison light-bulbs I had gotten at Home Depot and install them. And then I had to turn Sputnik on and play with the wifi dimming switch for a few minutes.



Sputnik in all his glory...


After I finished unpacking Red, I walked to the Post Office, and when I returned, I found a box from Kerry and Dave Nelson, dear friends and former proprietors of Ploughboy, Salida's late lamented local-food grocery store. I opened it and carefully lifted out a container of spring: bulbs in a beautiful yellow metal pot just the color of my kitchen cabinets. (Those jonquil sprouts are still yellow as well from their time in the box in transit, but they'll green up in a few days.)



There is still an enormous amount of work (and money) required to bring this house back to life: we need to finish updating the electrical systems, re-do some plumbing, replace a few floors, paint all of the walls and ceilings (my office is the only room that is more-or-less finished), tear off the horrible carport that makes the front entry bay a dark tunnel, add insulation throughout, replace some windows, and clean more accumulated grime. Then there's the yard: the snow blanket has melted and I can now see the mess (including the scary half-collapsed garden shed) and mud I will have to deal with come spring. 


No matter. I love this place already. I feel so fortunate to be here watching the evening sky turn pink and listening to the pair of great-horned owls hooting their soft duet from the spruce trees just outside. 


And to have friends and family and colleagues who offer support and kindness from near and far. Bless you all!

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